Finance Committee Meeting Clears Up $350,000 Controversy
As Marblehead Beacon reported earlier today, controversy erupted following yesterday’s Select Board meeting when School Superintendent John Buckey and School Committee Chair Sarah Fox expressed shock and concern after learning that expected funds from a $350,000 energy reserve account would no longer be allotted to the schools. Specifically, Buckey told Marblehead Beacon that he’d learned late yesterday that Finance Director Aleesha Nunley Benjamin had conveyed that the energy funds the School Department had historically relied upon were being taken away. Fox, in a call with Marblehead Beacon, provided more detail about what had been communicated to the schools as of yesterday afternoon, which essentially amounted to a demand that the schools “give back $60,000 from this year’s budget” and find another source for the $350,000 allotted to the schools from the energy reserve for next year. Fiscal year 2023 ends next week on June 30.
Fox sought to raise questions about these issues at last night’s Select Board meeting, but when public comment was not allowed, attention shifted to the FinCom meeting already on the calendar for this morning at 8:30 a.m. With a larger than usual audience in attendance, the online meeting began with a discussion of monetary transfers necessary to balance and close out the fiscal year 2023 budget, with approximately $563,000 moving from various reserve accounts and line items with funds remaining available to alternative line items that ended the year over budget. FinCom member Cam Staples was the first to raise the issue of the controversial $350,000 from the energy reserve, referencing the proposed transfers (shown below) and noting, “I would hate to allocate these funds today and then find out we don’t have anything left for the schools.”
During the conversation that followed, Benjamin – who was recently hired – expressed frustration with the way that things had previously been handled with regard to the school budget and specifically the energy reserve, noting that if “they are taking $350,000 for the schools,... it’s not leaving me enough money for the town.” She went on to explain that it is not “correct budgeting” to rely on a reserve every year. Several members of the Finance Committee pushed back, noting that the School Committee did not do anything out of line, and that they had every reason to expect that the $350,000 would be available to them as it has been in previous years.
When the public comment portion of the meeting opened, Fox offered an impassioned response, saying that “what I just heard from Aleesha is troubling on so many levels,” because of the apparent accusation “that the schools are hurting the town.” While expressing appreciation for the members of FinCom and noting the many ways in which they have worked collaboratively with the school department over the past year, Fox noted that “we are one town, one pot of money,” and she is very hopeful that this collaborative relationship will continue.
School Committee member Alison Taylor also weighed in, noting that “the optics of this entire thing just don’t sit well” and reiterating her commitment to “move toward increased transparency.”
While it appeared that members of the School Committee and FinCom did not have all of the details about plans for the $350,000 allotment prior to the meeting, and there was significant confusion throughout about whether the issue was for the current (FY2023) or next (FY2024) year, there seemed to be a clear resolution by the time the meeting was adjourned.
Benjamin, in an apparent shift from yesterday, explained that she would now be asking the schools to cover just $7,000 extra for the 2023 fiscal year, rather than the $60,000 she had asked for yesterday. The $7,000 represents the amount that the schools have utilized above the $350,000 allotment. Benjamin also clarified that she told Michelle Cresta, the Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, that “I’m not telling her she can’t use it for 2024,” but that she would like to see the energy reserve as well as all expenses for school employee health insurance be included directly in the school budget, rather than having some school expenses included within the town’s line items, which does not represent appropriate budgetary practice.
FinCom Chair Alec Goolsby also reiterated that the $350,000 is available for next year, noting that “the reserve was approved as part of the reduced services budget,” which is the budget that remains in effect following the defeat of the override this past Tuesday.
Reached immediately after the meeting, Fox expressed her appreciation to the Finance Committee, noting that she “did not know what transpired between last night and this morning,” but that she is “very grateful we now have clear affirmation from the town.”